The Republican debate Saturday night didn’t get the attention it deserves. Two of the front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, definitively called for the United States to use military action against Iran, if sanctions and other measures fail to stop its atomic weapons program. Since, according to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is already close to realizing this goal, and since one of these two men might very well be president, this strikes me as more newsworthy than the coverage so far. It is an important development substantively and politically.

When the IAEA report came out, both Ed and I suggested the Republican candidates be circumspect in their responses. This was a development, we said, that was best answered with grave concerns, but by refusing to succumb to hypothetical questions or locking in a position. The answer Romney and Gingrich should have given was: “The Obama Administration has failed so far to stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. My administration will not tolerate this provocation to the region. Working with our allies, we will impose tougher sanctions, re-double covert action, and not rule out tougher measures.” In answer to the inevitable follow-up -- “But if these sanctions etc. don’t work, what then?” -- they should have said: “My answer stands. I have the gravest concerns about this potential development, but I will not answer a hypothetical when so much is at stake.” This is the kind of wiggle answer presidents and would-be presidents have to give sometimes. Instead, as Karen Tumulty’s article on the debate points out, both the leading candidates for the Republican nomination committed the United States to military action.

Here’s why this matters: Extrapolating from the IAEA report, the next president may very well face a nuclear Iran early in the term.(Despite what Romney and Gingrich say, the United States is already imposing sanctions and is undoubtedly working furiously with Israel and other allies in covert operations to block Iran’s program.) So a President Romney or a President Gingrich would have already lit the fuse, forcing the United States toward military action. How? Bombing runs? And if they fail, invasion?

Americans, particularly independent voters, will want more from these men about their Iran policy as the campaign develops. Americans already know, or will learn, that Iran has a sophisticated military and the ability to hide its nuclear program, or worse, place it in the middle of Teheran. Iran also has a crazy leader who would love nothing more than a showdown with the twin devils of Israel and the United States to unite his divided country and make him the new hero of a region at the tipping point in the wake of the Arab-spring.

After our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, voters will want more than to hear the sable rattle; they will want, and they deserve, to hear very specific answers on how Gingrich and Romney plan to use our military against Iran. And if either man survives this scrutiny and the campaign in general, he may look back with regret on what seemed like a routine answer in an insignificant Saturday night debate long ago.